Jessica Kaye, James Martinez, and Arlene Chico Lugoin The Asphalt Kiss
(Photo © Peter Dressel)
Jessica Kaye, James Martinez, and Arlene Chico Lugo
in The Asphalt Kiss
(Photo © Peter Dressel)
A dying man asks for and receives a kiss from Arandir, a young male stranger who comes to his aid in a crowded city square in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues' seminal 1960 work, The Asphalt Kiss, this simple act of kindness sets off a media frenzy that engulfs Arandir and his family. The play is currently having its New York premiere as the centerpiece of a month-long celebration of Rodrigues' work at 59E59 Theaters. Unfortunately, while the piece itself is intriguing, the production is seriously flawed.

The author presents a compelling narrative in episodic fashion. We never see the actual kiss but the story of how it happened is told several times, changed and distorted with each iteration. Homophobia rears its ugly head as the truth of the matter becomes a Rashomon-like puzzle. Arandir (James Martinez) is accused of being involved in a long-term affair with the deceased , and Arandir's neighbors and co-workers suddenly "remember" seeing the man hanging around. Even the dead man's widow (Dawn McGee) alters her initial story as to whether or not Arandir knew her husband prior to the accident.

Despite the devastating impact that his moment of compassion has on his life, Arandir doesn't come to regret the kiss; indeed, he considers it the one noble thing he has ever done. He looks for understanding from his wife Selminha (Jessica Kaye) but finds that her supposedly unconditional love has limits after all. The play builds to a crescendo that could have been shocking, yet the effect is marred by Charles Turner's performance as Arandir's father-in-law, Aprígio. The actor telegraphs his intentions in such large type that it was clear what the dénouement of the plot would be several scenes prior to its enactment.

Director Sarah Cameron Sunde has attempted a stylized staging of the play, presented here in an English translation by Alex Ladd. The acting is often bombastic, with individual performers frequently speaking in declamatory fashion and gesturing extravagantly. For such an approach to work, actors need to convey that they actually understand what they're doing; sadly, this is not the case here. The worst offenders are Paul de Sousa, who plays the corrupt policeman Cunha, and Turner, who practically brings the action to a halt with his stumbling line delivery.

Faring slightly better are Martinez and Kaye; they are at least able to connect with one another, although both seem at a loss when playing opposite de Sousa or Turner. Arlene Chico-Lugo has a few bright moments as Selminha's sister, Dália, but tends to indicate her emotional states in too broad a fashion. The only person in the eight-actor ensemble who does excellent work is McGee in a number of small roles.

Traci Klainer's noirish lighting effectively sets the tone for the production, aided by Jeremy Lee's sound design. Lauren Helpern's multi-level set is striking but is not always used as effectively as it could be. Wade Laboissonniere's costumes, especially those for the men, suggest a period look while simultaneously seeming contemporary.

Rodrigues is considered to be one of the foremost Brazilian dramatists of the 20th century. His oeuvre is not very well known in the U.S., and 59E59's festival of his work -- which includes a series of play readings and a screening of his 1973 film All Nudity Shall Be Punished -- deservedly focuses attention on the artist. But it's disappointing that that the festival's only fully staged presentation of his work is this passionless Kiss.